One of the age-old struggles of novice guitar players is figuring out how to play clean, precise notes with minimal string noise. Luckily, if you find yourself struggling to keep your notes clean and smooth, there are a few tips and techniques you can use to clean up your playing.
Here are 10 tips for playing electric guitar cleaner:
- Adjust your grip.
- Mute unplayed strings.
- Use the right pick.
- Exercise proper picking technique.
- Build finger strength.
- Master the hammer-on technique.
- Master the pull-off technique.
- Learn to bend strings effectively.
- Practice a variety of exercises.
- Start out slowly and deliberately.
This article will explain each technique in detail. Read on to learn the easiest ways to implement these tips and tricks in your own playing.
1. Adjust Your Grip
One of the most common mistakes among novice guitar players is improper grip, specifically what experienced players often call the “death grip.” This grip is an example of incorrect technique, where your fretting hand grips the guitar’s neck tightly, and the thumb wraps all the way around and over the top of the fretboard.
Instead of wrapping all the way around, your thumb should only reach about halfway up the back of the guitar’s neck. With the correct grip, your thumb is pointed upwards instead of being wrapped around the neck completely.
The “death grip” can decrease your fingers’ mobility and make it much harder to transition smoothly between notes. It may take some practice and discipline, but correcting your grip can make a huge difference in cleaning up your electric guitar playing.
2. Mute Unplayed Strings
It can be frustrating when you’re picking a melody, and the other strings are ringing out seemingly of their own accord. This dissonance happens when your strumming and fretting hands accidentally brush against the strings that should otherwise be silent. When the strings move, they create subtle yet noticeable notes that don’t fit with the melody you are trying to play.
The best way to avoid this string noise is to mute the strings that you aren’t using as you’re playing. Here are some ways of using the muting technique to minimize string noise:
Mute With Your Fretting Hand
There are six strings on a guitar, and it can be challenging to control all of them at once. Luckily, you have two hands. Assigning strings to each hand is an excellent way to simplify the muting technique.
For the following techniques, it’s important to note that a guitar’s strings are organized by thickness (or gauge). The strings closest to your face when you’re playing are the thickest. These strings play the lowest notes in terms of pitch. The strings progressively get thinner the further they get from your face, and in turn, the notes they play get higher-pitched.
Using Available Fingers To Mute
In most cases, the strings that play higher notes—or the strings furthest from your face—should be muted with the available fingers of your fretting hand. If you are a right-handed guitar player, this will be your left hand. In this technique, you can mute the three thinnest strings using any fingers not pressing down on strings to make specific notes.
The best way to mute strings is to press on the string gently. You don’t need to press hard at all; in fact, it is usually only necessary to rest your finger on the string. The slight pressure from your finger will stop the string from vibrating and producing a note.
To see this technique in action, take a look at this video posted by YouTube user Mikerisms:
Muting and Fretting Simultaneously
Sometimes, it’s possible to use your fretting fingers to play and mute simultaneously. This technique may sound complex, but it becomes much easier with practice. Essentially, you are using the tips of your fretting fingers as they are fretting notes to mute the strings above them.
The same muting principle of gentle pressure applies to this technique—the tips of your fingers apply just enough pressure to stop the vibration and silence the unnecessary strings.
To see a visual demonstration of this technique, check out this YouTube video featuring guitar instructor Steve Stine:
Mute With Your Non-Fretting Hand
While using your fretting hand is perfect for muting the thinner strings, you can use your non-fretting hand to mute the thicker strings. With this technique, however, you aren’t using individual fingers to mute the strings. Instead, you will use the palm or edge of your hand.
As you pick the strings, the edge of your hand should be hovering near the top strings of the guitar. Gently rest your palm on these strings to mute them as you pick a melody on the thinner strings. This slight pressure will stop them from vibrating and creating discordant background noise.
This technique is also demonstrated in the YouTube video by Mikerisms:
3. Use the Right Pick
If you’re new to electric guitar, you may be asking: All guitar picks are the same, right? Wrong. Guitar picks vary in material, size, width, hardness, and even in the sharpness of the point. The pick that you choose to use influences the sound and cleanness of your playing.
Many experts recommend looking for a pick with a slightly more extreme point for playing electric guitar riffs and melodies. This sharper point provides you with more precision and can make your playing sound cleaner. I recommend the Jim Dunlop Guitar Picks from Amazon. They’re sharp-pointed, durable, and easy to handle.
In addition, thicker gauge guitar picks are typically recommended for playing riffs and solos on the electric guitar. They’re known to allow for more speed and accuracy, which both contribute to the cleanness of your guitar playing. Medium picks are preferred for rhythm and thicker picks (over 0.80mm or 1/28 inch) are best for adding bass and midrange tones.
Finding the Right Pick for You
You should consider all of these characteristics of picks if you are looking for a cleaner sound in your guitar playing. Using a pick that is uncomfortable for your hand or doesn’t suit your style of playing can result in excess pick movement, leading to unwanted string noise or clumsy picking.
If you’re not sure which pick is right for you, I recommend this Fender Pick Sampler Pack on Amazon. This sampler pack of premium picks is an excellent way to experiment with different pick widths to determine which size is right for you.
4. Exercise Proper Picking Technique
Hold Your Pick Properly
Not many beginner guitar players realize that they can hold their pick in a specific way to maximize speed and accuracy. Here are three steps to holding a guitar pick properly:
- Relax your picking hand and form it into a loose fist. For right-handed guitar players, this will be your right hand. Your thumb should be resting gently near the upper knuckle of your index finger.
- Slide the pick beneath your thumb so that it is resting atop the edge of your index finger. The pick should be pinched between the pad of your thumb and the edge of your finger.
- Adjust the pick so that there is approximately half an inch sticking out past your thumb. The point of the pick should be sticking out far enough to reach the strings when you are in playing position.
Keep a relaxed grip on the pick as you play, but don’t let it move around too much in your hand. It should stay pinched between your thumb and the edge of your index finger.
Adjusting Your Pick’s Angle
When picking on an electric guitar, the pick should be turned at a flat angle so that it fully catches the strings and creates a clear, percussive sound. Angling the pick at a vertical angle rather than a horizontal one reduces your control, making it difficult to play each note cleanly and deliberately.
This concept is demonstrated in Steve Stine’s tutorial on YouTube for controlling string noise:
Using Directional Picking
Picking individual notes can be done with a downstroke or an upstroke. As you might imagine, playing with only down or upstrokes can make your electric guitar playing choppy and unclean. Instead, try the directional picking technique to clean up your electric guitar playing.
Directional picking, also known as economy picking, involves using up and down strokes in a “smooth” fashion. Instead of just picking upwards or alternating between upward and downward strokes, directional picking calls for using one stroke to play two individual notes.
For example, let’s say the first note you need to play is on the G string. You pick the string using a downstroke. If the following note is to be played on the string immediately below (the B string), you will continue that initial downstroke and apply it to the B string in one smooth motion.
This technique creates picking efficiency and makes it easier to play notes quickly and accurately. Although it takes practice, mastering this technique will help you play cleaner notes more fluidly.
5. Build Finger Strength
To someone who doesn’t play guitar, it may come as a surprise that playing the strings requires strength. Playing a note requires that your fingers are strong enough to press down on the fretboard and agile enough to pick the strings smoothly and efficiently. Finger strength is essential to mastering the following techniques and getting a cleaner guitar sound.
6. Master the Hammer-On Technique
If you’re new to guitar, you might be surprised to learn that there are more ways to play a melody than picking individual notes. The hammer-on and pull-off techniques make a huge difference in the smoothness of an electric guitar melody. As a result, learning these techniques will significantly improve your ability to play the electric guitar cleanly.
The hammer-on technique involves playing a note, then using one of your fretting fingers to raise that note to a higher pitch without picking the string again.
To do this, you pluck the string, then place your finger on a higher fret while the note is still ringing. You do this somewhat quickly (within a second or two) to adjust the note while the string is still vibrating and producing sound. Make sure you’re pressing somewhat forcefully on the string to complete the hammer-on—otherwise, you will mute the string instead of raising the pitch.
7. Master the Pull-Off Technique
The pull-off technique is similar in principle to the hammer-on technique. Just like with a hammer-on, you only pick the string once. However, this time you will decrease the note’s pitch by pulling your finger off of the fretboard.
Here are three simple steps to properly using the pull-off technique:
- Prepare your fingers by placing one on the fret you wish to play and one on the fret of the note you want to follow it. Be sure to press down firmly with both of these fingers.
- Pick the first note. Allow for it to ring out for a short moment.
- Now, as the name suggests, you will pull the finger fretting that note off of the string. When you do so, you should gently “flick” the string downwards as you release your finger. This flicking motion causes the string to vibrate. If you have adequately prepared, your other finger will have remained placed on the string. As a result, the note associated with that fret will ring out.
It can be difficult to grasp these techniques fully with just a verbal explanation. For a visual demonstration of hammer-ons and pull-offs, check out this tutorial on YouTube featuring Danny Gill:
Once you have mastered these techniques, you can experiment with using them for more than two notes at a time. Using hammer-ons and pull-offs will reduce the picking strokes you make and help your electric guitar playing sound much cleaner.
8. Learn To Bend Strings Effectively
The bending technique is another excellent way to create smooth transitions between the notes you’re playing. Bending involves picking a note, then pressing upwards or downwards on the string while it’s still ringing to augment the note’s pitch. Using this technique, you can smoothly shift from one note to the next.
Check out this YouTube video posted by GuitarZoom to see bending in action:
Take the time to practice this technique and get it right—doing so will help your guitar-playing sound much cleaner.
9. Practice a Variety of Exercises
You know what they say: Practice makes perfect — well, almost perfect. Below are a few exercises you can use to increase the speed, accuracy, and precision of your playing.
Exercises for Speed
Many beginner guitarists struggle with being able to play quickly and cleanly at the same time. Luckily, you can do a few practical exercises to increase your speed and precision on the guitar simultaneously.
Not only will practicing scales help you increase your playing speed, but it will also prepare you for freestyle soloing. Two birds with one stone, right? Check out this compilation of scale diagrams published by the National Guitar Academy to start practicing your scales today.
Like scales, arpeggios are a simple way to increase your speed and accuracy on the electric guitar. Arpeggios follow many of the same principles as scales. However, instead of playing notes that increase one step at a time, you will essentially be playing the individual elements of a chord.
For more information and some helpful arpeggio diagrams, take a look at the Applied Guitar Theory website.
Play Along to Solos
If you are trying to learn a specific song or solo on electric guitar, it can work wonders to play along with it. Using audio from the song will help ensure that the notes you are playing are accurate and in time with the rest of the song. One way to do this is to play along with the song itself, but you can also use a backing track.
10. Start Slowly and Deliberately
When learning a new song on electric guitar, it can be extremely tempting to jump in at full speed. However, it is hugely beneficial to slow down and practice each piece of the song deliberately. It is much easier to find and correct mistakes early on than to make corrections after learning much of the song.
Play With a Metronome
Using a metronome is a great way to make sure your playing is precise and consistent. A metronome is a device used to keep rhythm. Playing with one ensures that the notes you are playing align rhythmically with the pace you are trying to keep.
Although it may not seem helpful at first, many guitar experts recommend practicing scales and arpeggios alongside a metronome. Both traditional and digital metronomes are good ways to keep the rhythm while you practice. These days, they can even be found online as apps or built-in browser tools.
As you’re playing, think about the space in between each note. Consider the melody and rhythm of the song, and be aware of your picking technique. Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the process!